Chapter 1: Walt Whitman and Industrial America



During his lifetime, Walt Whitman was a cult figure, a national oddity, a scandal. From the 1870s until his death in 1892, Whitman’s admirers sedulously portrayed him as the Good Grey Poet, the American Sage, the authentic national voice, but the custodians of American literary taste were not persuaded by this campaigning. Although editors of leading reviews occasionally gave space to Whitman’s verse in their pages and were sometimes generous in their praise of him, he remained to the end a sort of raffish distant cousin of the family of American letters who might be nervously received at the kitchen entrance but under no circumstances was to be shown to the parlor. 1 Whitman was a man of genius, John Jay Chapman admitted a few years after the poet’s death, but a wayward one, an inspired mountebank, a tramp. Only Englishmen could possibly believe that Walt the tramp was a fit representative of sensible, conventional, get‑ahead American democracy. 2

In the twenty years following Whitman’s death all of this changed. Something approaching general acceptance was granted Whitman with the publication of Bliss Perry’s study of his life and work in 1906, but it was the young literary radicals who claimed him as their own. The little magazines of the 1910s—Poetry, the Little Review, the Masses, the Seven Arts—were mainly concerned with furthering the radical literary and social movements of their own day and did not often look back over their shoulders to the American past, but when they did they invariably saw Walt Whitman standing there alone. 3 Whitman was first of all a liberating example, a possession, a souce, “the first original,” as Aifred Kreymborg said, “the one true democratic and cosmopolitan on American soil.” The pre-War rebellion, otherwise so heavily indebted to European thought and European examples, took heart from this. “The roots the country grew out of,” Kreymborg later recalled of the pre-War years, “were still being transplanted from Europe—with that incongruous exception, old Walt.” 4 Whitman, said Ezra Pound, went bail for the nation. 5

How, exactly? As a literary progenitor? Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry, affirmed Whitman as the source of “free verse,” but this was disputed. 6 Ezra Pound acknowledged in “A Pact” that Whitman had broken the wood from which the new poets carved, but Pound went to Europe for carving lessons, and most young poets of the decade followed him there. To those most deeply moved by Leaves of Grass, Whitman was more than an “influence;” a first encounter with the book was often a rite of passage. Whitman's lonely bohemianism had once been an embarrassment to those who admired him but adhered to the proprieties. The rebels of the 1910’s were bohemians themselves and saw in Whitman a fellow spirit. To a generation committed to desublimating sexual im­pulses, Whitman was a priapic bard, a singer of the body's rights. 7 To others, Whitman represented American democracy—not its actuality, but its mystical core, its liberating potential. Whitman the democrat, bohemian, and poet of sexual love (only carping spirits seemed to notice his homosexuality) was an almost unavoidable symbol of freedom and spontaneity around 1912. He was a disheveled and benign saint, everybody’s “favorite older American writer,” as Henry F. May has said. 8

But Whitman’s symbolic importance was greater than this enumeration of attributes suggests. To Van Wyck Brooks, James Oppenheim, and Waldo Frank of the Seven Arts, to Robert Henri, the leader of the Ash Can school of painters who chanted Whitman to his art classes, Whitman was the prototype of the modern. 9 Brooks was particularly intense about this. Whitman, he argued, was the one American writer of the nineteenth century in whom the two ordinarily discordant impulses of the American character, the idealistic and the materialistic, had been fused. Each in the absence of the other led to futility. The idealistic impulse on its own was thin, arid, irrelevant. The materialistic impulse, left to itself, was quickly brutalized. Let the two only merge, as they had in Whitman, and American culture would be made whole for the first time. Add only “discipline” to that healthy equipoise that the poet had possessed and there was simply no knowing what prodigies American culture might perform. Brooks’ chapter on Whitman in America’s Coming‑of‑Age, the central chapter of the most important essay on American culture written in that decade, was titled “The Precipitant’’ 10 The renovation of American life was to proceed from Leaves of Grass.

“Health,” then, was the source of Whitman’s appeal. To John Jay Chapman, who admitted the appeal, “health” meant the poet himself, who fancied his body was electric, who knew there was no sweeter fat than stuck to his own bones. But to Brooks and his colleagues it meant more, the poet’s “emotional attitude,” his delight in everything around him: the Wall Street gold exchange, Broadway crowds, illustrated newspapers, open fields, the Manhattan docks. Leaves of Grass contained a vision of a free, robust, and “natural’’ life lived in the midst of an industrial civilization and in easy relationship to it. 10a In that book, nature and urban life, the individual and the mass, culture and democracy, and art and industry were in a hundred ways proclaimed to be mutually necessary and ultimately harmonious elements in a newly created American whole. To a generation of artists and intellectuals who felt keenly and sought to overcome the antagonisms and contradictions of twentieth century industrial civilization, the vision contained in Leaves of Grass had a deep appeal. To understand how that vision “worked,” why for a time it provided a basis for the most diffuse hopes, and why in the end it served as a cause for rebuke and disillusionment, one must first go to the Leaves themselves.




We know that Whitman did not always regard the American future with utter equanimity. For all of his cheerleading in behalf of industrialism he was made uneasy by it, and the moralist in him sometimes spoke harshly of the future that the nation was creating. His early poem “Respondez!” (which he dropped permanently from Leaves of Grass in 1881) is a prophetic, angry and turbulent poem in which America is indicted as a harlot of infidelity.11 In 1888, Horace Traubel fished out a fragment from Whitman’s papers containing these lines: “Go on, my dear Americans ... open all your valves and let her go—going, whirl with the rest—you will soon get under such momentum you can’t stop if you would.” 12 In Democratic Vistas, Whitman was mainly concerned with bad literature and declining private manners and public morals, but there is that remarkable passage toward the end in which he speaks of “the long series of tendencies, shapings, which few are strong enough to resist, and which now seem, with steam‑engine speed, to be everywhere turning out the generations of humanity like uniform iron castings.” Whitman goes on to warn that if these tendencies are not confronted by “at least an equally subtle and tremendous force‑infusion for purposes of spiritualization,” then modern civilization “with all its improvements” must meet with a destiny equivalent “to that of the fabled damned.” 13

Here, the “material” and the “spiritual” are not presented as phases in an evolutionary process, the one leading to the next‑‑Whitman’s usual practice‑‑, but as forces in stern conflict. The steam engine symbolizes not the human conquest of distance, but the inhuman force of the industrial process. The machine has usurped spirit’s role as the shaper of history, and history as a consequence is seen not as divine evolution but as a kind of mad assembly‑line.

Nothing like this idea occurs in Whitman’s verse, however, and very rarely in his prose. In the poems one finds only celebrations of locomotives, spinning machines, implements, works of engineering and “improvements” of all kinds. But as often as Whitman celebrated motion and magnitude, his social vision remained curiously static. While continents are spanned and oceans leaped in his verse, his personally experienced world remains to the end the world of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, the New York of the 1850s. It is a world of ferries, Broadway traffic, and stout Jacksonian workingmen, of solitary rambles in the nearby countryside or by the wild seashore. All of the grand exploits of the new industrial century take place in a social void, a technological heaven. We may note the significance of invention in “Passage to India.” Telegraphic communication across continents and oceans becomes spiritual communion among peoples, telegraphy being too wondrous an invention to be employed in the mundane business of dispatching stock quotations and freight orders, of creating a new industrial system.

If there was naivete in this, surely there was also calculation, a poet’s cunning, an instinctive determination not to see too much. His main purpose was not to warn darkly, but to give to his fellow citizens an imperishable vision of what an urban, industrial democracy might be. If there was guile in this, it was successful guile. In reading Whitman one is almost compelled to be made aware not of what his vision carefully excludes but of all that it takes in. He seems to accept everything, the evil and sordid along with the good. In that wonderful catalog of incidents, Part 15 of “Song of Myself,” he points to opium dens and lunatic asylums, and is moved to compassion at the sight of a prostitute giving back the curses of men who jeer at her. What, one might think, could be more true to life than this? Was there another poet or novelist of the time who included a tenth as much of American reality in his work?

But much is missing from this and similar catalogs No awareness is registered of spreading tenement slums, labor conflicts, or even, except by mild implication, class divisions. 14 There is no knowledge exhibited, that is to say, of the social forces behind the myriad characteristic incidents that Whitman so sharply records, no recognition of those impersonal shapings and tendencies whose existence he would briefly acknowledge in Democratic Vistas. His view is that of a reporter who knows the town from top to bottom, a man with a quick and sympathetic eye for the telling cameo, the lively vignette. Reading Part 15 of “Song of Myself” is like scanning a newspaper, a once‑and‑for‑all American special edition packed with fine feature stories. Significance inheres not in the isolated incident, the separate life revealed, but in the rich inclusiveness of it all, and the truth attested to is the truth of splendid national variety.

Variety is nowhere more dazzlingly displayed than in the city street, especially Broadway when viewed from the driver’s seat of an omnibus. “Always something novel or inspiriting;” says Whitman, “yet mostly to me the hurrying and vast amplitude of those never‑ending human currents.” 15 More than a spectacle to be enjoyed, the urban crowd is for Whitman visible confirmation that each man and woman is a part of the sublime whole. Look, he says, at these “seething multitudes around us, of which we are inseparable parts!” 16 Each member of the crowd is ideally as Whitman describes himself in “Song of Myself”. “Both in and out of the game, watching and wondering at it,” at once spectator at and participant in a pageant of democracy. And while each brings into the crowd his own peculiar badges of origin and condition, his “uniform,” the institutions and walks of life which these uniforms signify are temporarily abolished in the merging. 17 Thus the crowd serves as an image of democracy in its urban setting, a proof of diversity amidst unity. Whitman’s two polar but mutually necessary principles of democracy, “personalism” and the “en-masse,” melt together in the crowd and become one.

A skeptic might observe of this that if “en masse” is a principle given life in the case of, say, a public assembly or a processional, it becomes an empty abstraction when applied to the crowd, just as “inseparability” is a patent fiction, inasmuch as no collective purpose brings the crowd together. We move through or with the crowd, we do not participate in it. We are furtive spectators and unrecognized individuals. There is no game to be in or out of. We are, in short, anonymous.

Here is one reason why Whitman may seem to us so psychologically remote, so “innocent.” Anonymity is for us the urban condition, and a city crowd is by twentieth century definition a lonely crowd. Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, and Saul Bellow’s Tommy Wilhelm are all pitted against “the vast skepticism and apathy of life.” as Dreiser expressed it, and Whitman’s sort of affirmation in the face of that blank indifference to individual fate is likely to seem merely fatuous. 18

Whitman knew anonymity. In Democratic Vistas he makes a distinction between the crowd as the clear-eyed realist sees it and the crowd as it is seen—as it should be seen—by its poet. A few pages into the essay Whitman says he derives a “continued exaltation and absolute fulfilment” from wandering night and day among the crowds of Manhattan. But, he adds, if you shut your eyes to the general effect and come right down to the individual personalities exhibited there, what do you see? “Confess that to severe eyes,” he admonishes, “a sort of dry and flat Sahara appears, these cities, crowded with petty grotesques, malformations, phantoms playing meaningless antics.” 19 A few pages later, warming to a different theme, Whitman writes that “when I mix with these interminable swarms of alert, turbulent, good‑natured, independent citizens, mechanics, clerks, young persons—at the idea of this mass of men, so fresh and free, so loving and proud, a singular awe falls upon me.” 20

From the point of view of the realist, the grandeur of the crowd is only a superficial effect. He sees through it, to the stubborn and sullen particularity of each member. But his vision is deficient. To appreciate the central spirit of the crowd one must contemplate the idea of it. The “idea of this mass of men” implies as many constituent “ideas” as there are men, and the idea of each man includes not only what he is at the moment but the potentialities inherent in his being. Poor Carlyle, old Whitman mused in Camden, “he had no avenue of approach to the people; he lost his way in the jungle: the people were not a beautiful abstraction—they were an ugly fact.” 21

If the crowd represents to Whitman the ideal of humanity unencumbered of the weight of institutions and delimiting custom, caught up in a ritual promenade of recognition and self‑discovery, then work too is at its best a ritual: an engagement of the body with resistant matter, a testing of personal limits, a joyous shaping of things. Whitman is never more fascinated or more sure of his striking powers of observation than when he is describing men at work. Part 3 of “Song of the Broad-Axe” describes the various branches of the trade he knew best, carpentry. Here he describes the erection of a house:


The hoist-up of beams, the push of them in their places, laying them regular,

Setting the studs by their tenons in the mortises according as they were prepared,

The blows of mallets and hammers, the attitudes of the men, their curv’d limbs,

Bending, standing, astride the beams, driving in pins, holding on by posts and braces....


Then spar-makers hewing out the shape of a mast:


The brisk short crackle of the steel driven slantingly into the pine,

The butter-color’d chips flying off in great flakes and slivers,

The limber motion of brawny young arms and hips in easy constumes ...


Whitman, watching these carpenters or a line of masons slapping their trowels on a brick wall, experiences an almost proprietary glow, like a ballet impresario watching his company from the wings. Work is deeply pleasurable in his poetry. The inertia and recalcitrance of materials—the heft of a stevedore’s sack, the thickness of an unshaped house beam—provide just enough resistance to call forth satisfying effort. That performed, materials yield to men.

Work at its best also gives the workman command over space; not just room enough to move in, but a dramatic setting. Hence, Whitman admires most the men who work at heights: a mason on a building scaffold, a sailor high in a schooner’s rigging. When height is joined to motion Whitman’s imagination is completely satisfied. Ferry captains, omnibus drivers, locomotive engineers, “our modern Brooklyn fire laddies, with their costly and beautiful machines”—such men are for Whitman the lords of the working classes. 21a

Steam power meant primarily steam locomotion to him, an engine-assisted intensification of speed. The machine meant release. For the rest, the idea of the machine and the idea of work hardly make acquaintance in Whitman’s poems and essays. Except for those occupations which grant the workman control over an engine, work in Whitman’s scheme is a pre-industrial activity.

Whitman did not wholly ignore industrial occupations. As early as “Song of Myself,” he speaks of the spinning girl “who retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel,” and of the “clean-hair’d Yankee girl” who “works with her sewing-machine or in the factory or mill.” But these are women, and the imagery—one girl dancing to the wheel’s music, the other demurely neat in appearance—lends to nascent industrialism a naive charm redolent of the Lowell Offering. Later, Whitman employs different techniques. In “A Song for Occupations,” he describes industrial work as pure process:


The blast-furnace and the puddling-furnaces, the loup-lump at the bottom of the melt at last, the rolling-mill, the stumpy bars of pig-iron, the strong clean-shaped T-rail for railroads...


Or he simply lists machines:


Stave-machines, planing machines, reaping machines, ploughing machines, thrashing-machines, steam-wagons...


Whitman loved machines, and saw the outlines of a new visual aesthetic emerging from industrial realities‑those “shapes” he conjures into existence in “Song of the Broad‑Axe”: “Shapes of factories, arsenals, foundries ... vast frame‑works, girders, arches...” He could stand any time, he confessed, transfixed by the half-hour watching the “proud, crashing, ten‑cylinder presses” in the basements of the New York dailies. 21a In an industrial setting, Whitman watched the machinery, not the workmen. The drama of work had been absorbed by the machines. Their tenders, confined to repetitive and graceless routines, he either described perfunctorily or ignored altogether.

This refusal to connect machine technology to changes in the nature of work is most clearly seen in “Song of the Exposition,” a paean to progress composed for an industrial fair in New York in 1871. After brashly and humorously summoning the Muse to migrate to America at the poem’s beginning, Whitman indicates the kinds of things that her afflatus must hereafter work upon: not ancient and pretty fables, but the great contemporary facts of industry. Whitman predicts that America will soon build great modern monuments, not in a spirit of jealous rivalry to Europe, nor in emulation of her, but out of necessary native impulses. Mightier than Egypt’s pyramids and Rome’s temples, prouder than the cathedral of Milan, he says,


We plan even now to raise, beyond them all,

Thy great cathedral sacred industry, no tomb,

A keep for life for practical invention.


The palace of industry,. a modern wonder “history’s seven outstripping,” and its lesser fellows devoted to the arts, music, the sciences, and learning, are pictured as “High rising tier on tier with glass and iron facades.” No conventional architectural styles here, no bas‑reliefs, no masonry, just glass and iron “in cheerfulest hues;” modern materials appropriate to modern monu­ments: vertical Crystal Palaces, indeed skyscrapers. Whitman’s architectural vision, then, is audaciously futuristic. 22

When we enter the palace of industry, however, matters become more ambiguous. Whitman’s purpose is threefold. First, he would de‑mystify the industrial process by revealing its fundamental principles to be simple and graspable, thus hastening the acclimation of the common man to the new environment of machines. Second, he would “exalt the present and real” by demonstrating in this microcosm of the world of machines something of the new environment’s excitement and beauty. Third, he would “teach the average man the glory of his daily walk and trade.” By making accessible to the visitor the sight of all trades being practiced under the sun, Whitman believes that the final lesson of the exhibit will be driven home. That lesson is that each American man and woman of whatever station in life shall find fulfilment in performing the necessary tasks of society, through “manual work for each and all.” Each must “see to it that he really do something.” All will learn to plant and to build, to use the hammer and the saw,


To invent a little, something ingenious, to aid the washing, cooking, cleaning,

And hold it no disgrace to take a hand at them themselves.


Paradoxically, through industrial education and the exhibiting of the newest machines, Whitman would restore to life the all‑round Yankee mechanic, the jack-of-all-trades, who had flourished during his youth. His conception of the role of invention is, in 1871, just short of being anachronistic. He does not see it as a force that must abolish the very concept of work that he eulogizes. It is to be an auxiliary to handicrafts and domestic pursuits, simply one among many activities to which free-spirited workingmen will occasionally turn in their daily rounds. Technical genius is to be found throughout the population at large; it neither creates elites nor implies a system.

Whitman, then, found the model for the civilization of the future in the republic of his youth, and never reconciled his admiration for “practical improvements” to a vision of the good life that above all valued simplicity, comradeship, and freedom. One finds throughout Whitman’s poetry and prose two opposed clusters of ideas, on one side technical genius, material elaboration, progress, and splendid cities, and on the other, freedom from institutional restraints, spiritual efflorescence, and repose. He could quite nicely harmonize the two in his own being, as sensation: idling by the ferry rail and hasting with the current. But in moving from sensation to ideas, from Walt Whitman to American history, he encountered seemingly insuperable difficulties.

In the main, Whitman grouped these contraries under two rubrics, “matter” and “spirit.” He attempted to reconcile them in several ways. Sometimes he saw them as complementary opposites, male and female, and sometimes, Hegel‑like, as thesis and antithesis. occasionally he would boldly assert the identity of the two. “Thrive cities,” he said in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “bring your freight, bring your shows, ample and sufficient rivers,/ Expand, being that which none else is perhaps more spiritual . . . ”And in Democractic Vistas he announced, “We stand, live, move, in the huge flow of our age’s materialism—in its spirituality.” 23

His usual method of reconciling material progress and spiritual transcendence was to conceive of the first as a period of preparation for the second, as in “Passage to India.” Progress, the egocentric and expansionist nineteenth century impulse, leads Europeans and Americans back, full circle, to “reason’s early paradise,/ Back, back to wisdom’s birth, to innocent imitations.’’ Thus Whitman justified progress, but hardly in progress’ name. He sees it as a necessary history-long detour.

Such a scenario reduces the significance of the American continent to that of a railroad track and a series of way‑stations along the route to Oriental wisdom. “Passage to India” thus provides no answer to the question of how America herself is to ascend from the material to the spiritual stage of her history in which she will prove “different from others, more expansive, more rich and free,” by establishing a “sublime and Religious Democracy.” 24 In “Passage to India,” moreover, progress is but an instrument of the divine plan. In the American scheme of things, progress must be given a more positive and vital meaning. If the pioneer is to create that religious democracy Whitman has “promulged,” he must discover his inspiration for it in the landscape, and its sources in his own being and experience. Transcendent aspiration must therefore be located within the idea of progress; spirituality must be made to emerge from materiality.

Whitman’s “Song of the Redwood‑Tree” represents an attempt to bring about on American ground the same result he had achieved on a cosmic scale in “Passage to India.” Progress here brings Western man into contact with the primeval forest, with redemptive nature. The tension produced in Whitman by his dual allegiance to matter and spirit here results in a split identification, on the one side with the redwood tree, representing timelessness, wisdom, and solitude, and on the other with the woodsman, representing progress, “these States,” the nineteenth century, and industrial expansion. Whitman is divided between romantic anthropomorphism and hard‑headed anthropocentrism, between man in nature and man dominant over nature. He overcomes—or rather, simply abolishes—this duality with a startling device. He gives to the redwood tree itself the role of speaking the benediction over progress. The redwood assures its brethren that man will absorb and assimilate nature in the act of conquering it. The redwood’s soliloquy is thus one of abdication and gladsome sacrifice.

But all basis for the belief that man will absorb nature in the act of conquering it is dashed when Whitman, at the tree’s death, proceeds to speak the moral of the tale. Men are not merely the chosen successors to the felled trees, but “deities of the modern” before which everything must yield. Nature is forgotten when Whitman envisions the future that must be. In nature’s place we have the standard catalog of achievements: “Populous cities, the latest inventions, the steamers on the rivers, the railroads, with many a thrifty farm, with machinery...” 25

Whitman here might almost be taken for one of those conventional late nineteenth century spokesmen for progress who regarded the romantic view of nature as sentimental nonsense. The slackness of his rhetoric perhaps betrays his unease. He was, for once, “facing facts”: to celebrate America in the nineteenth century almost required that one celebrate progress too, and in the end pretty much on progress’ own restrictive terms. To do otherwise required more than “innocence”; it required a deliberate refusal. One sometimes sees Whitman in the act of refusal, as in the 1860 poem “Thoughts.” He begins by expounding on the theme of “How America illustrates birth, muscular youth, the promise, the sure fulfilment... absolute success,” and goes on to list the usual evidences, only to repudiate it all in the last line: “0 it lurks in me night and day—what is gain after all to savageness and freedom?”

But his usual way was to reach out with both hands, seemingly oblivious to conflict, taking “gain” in one hand and “savageness” in the other. It was not enough, he said in “A Song of Joys,” to have “this globe or a certain time,/ I will have thousands of globes and all time.” There spoke the Whitman who would confound time, development and historical necessity, Whitman the creator of that America of the imagination in which machines, populous cities, and all the latest improvements were proudly displayed, but which was yet free, simple, and bucolic. A magical ambiguity hovered over the whole scene.

There was ambiguity first of all in Whitman’s essential persona, Adam as buoyant treader of city payments. As with his created self, so with his city: the uncorrupted Indian word “Mannahatta” came with successive chants to suggest both the aboriginal past and the steel-towered future. In part, the strangely “pastoral” quality that Irving Howe has noted of Whitman’s city is a consequence of the poet’s attitude. 26 When Whitman gazes upon the urban scene (and “gaze” is a favorite Whitman word, suggesting mild and loving contemplation, a kind of ocular reverie), he is almost always lounging somewhere, as placidly at his ease as if he were stretched out in a meadow, a spear of grass in his mouth. Mannahatta is pastoral in another and deeper sense. Men are not pressed down by necessity there, and not divided sharply into orders. They work neither to assure their own survival nor to make the wheels of commerce hum, but for the satisfaction of it. As David Weimer has said—speaking here of the imagery in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”—Whitman’s city is “bathed in an amazing poignance.” 27




As everyone knows, Ezra Pound’s relationship to Whitman was a vexed one: 28


I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—

I have detested you long enough...


Mentally I am a Walt Whitman who has learned to wear a collar and a dress shirt (though at times inimical to both) ...


The “Yawp” is respected from Denmark to Bengal, but we can’t stop with the “Yawp.”


Whitman is a hard nutt. The leaves of Grass is the book. It is almost impossible to read it without swearing at the author almost continuously.


No American poetry is of any use for the palette. Whitman is the best of it, but he never pretended to have reached the goal.


And so it went, from 1909 until 1917, when Pound’s friend T.S. Eliot, perhaps at Pound’s instigation, determined to put a stop to all those silly rumors once and for all:


Whitman is not an influence; there is not a trace of him anywhere; Whitman and Mr.Pound are antipodean to each other. 29


But they were not. Pound may have detested what he doubtless regarded as the cosmical claptrap of much of Whitman’s verse, but the affinities between the two men ran deep. It is most discernible in the prose that they wrote. Both were given to writing manifestos full of wit, defiance, and didacticism. Both assumed mantles of authority as a matter of unquestionable right from the very beginning.

In 1913, Pound wrote a book on the future of American culture called Patria Mia. His publisher lost the manuscript, however, and did not find it and publish the book until 1950. 30 Patria Mia (a title Whitman would have loved) resembles no other book in American literature so much as Whitman’s Democratic Vistas. Both writers express contempt for what passes for literature among the polite classes of the. nation; both single out a cringing conformity to English standards as the cause of this state of affairs; both in effect re-define “culture,” and see it developing not under official sanction—the respectable reviews and the universities—but “out there,” in Whitman’s view among the healthy masses, in Pound’s, as a concomitant of and complement to the amassing of wealth in get-ahead New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Thereafter the two diverge. In Whitman’s scheme, the supreme poets of the future are to celebrate and justify American democracy; theirs will be a bardic office. In Pound’s scheme poets have no such responsibilities: let them get on with writing the best verse that is in them, and the masses be damned. Consequently their versions of the future differ in kind (although hardly in grandeur)—Whitman’s a democracy to redeem the world, Pound’s an American Risorgimento, an awakening that will, as he wrote to Harriet Monroe, “make the Italian Renaissance look like a tempest in a teapot!” 31

But it is not in their expectations for American literature that Pound and Whitman most resemble one another. Their kinship is most evident in the welcome both throw out to tall buildings, crowded cities, and all the great American facts. If anything, Pound is more exhilarated by these things than Whitman. When Pound wrote Patria Mia he had been in London for several years, and as has happened so often to artists in exile, his residence in London served to remind him that there were after all certain things that Americans did better than other peoples. As the book’s title suggests, Patria Mia is not only a book of national affirmation but an act of national discovery.

Take, for example, the Seventh Avenue crowd. It is, Pound says, “pagan as ever imperial Rome was, eager, careless, with an animal vigour unlike that of any European crowd that I have ever looked at. There is none of the melancholy, the sullenness, the unhealth of the London mass, none of the worn vivacity of Paris.” Europe has nothing to match the “sham fairyland” of Coney Island, “marvelous against the night sky as one approaches it or leaves it.” And the city itself, “Manhattan! Has it not buildings that are Egyptian in their contempt for the unit?” The New York skyscraper is “our first sign of the ‘alba: of America, the nation.” 32 True, there is much that is vulgarly assertive about New York, and the mansions of the Fifth Avenue rich are a disaster, but the buildings of midtown and downtown, the Pennsylvania Station and the Metropolitan Life tower especially, are the real thing, unmistakable signs of the coming renaissance. Should a person of taste be disturbed by the eclecticism of the Metropolitan Life tower, its blatant borrowing of the campanile form? Not at all.


With the advance of steel construction it has become possible to build in the proportions of the campanile something large enough to serve as an office building. This tower is some 700 odd feet high and dominates New York as the older towers dominate hill towns of Tuscany. It is white and very beautiful, and it is imperfect, for its clock projects in a very ugly manner. But no man with sensibilities can pass the base of it without some savour of pride and some thought beyond the moment.


And so Pound’s peroration soars, ending with a declaration which for sheer Yankee brag exceeds anything to be found in Whitman:


And as for Venice; when Mr. Marinetti and his friends shall have succeeded in destroying that ancient city, we will rebuild Venice on the Jersey mud flats and use the same for a tea-shop. 33


If Patria Mia is in many respects a sort of updated Democratic Vistas, it differs from Whitman’s essay in some important ways. As has been noted, Whitman’s vistas were democratic, while Pound gave not a fig for democracy: New Yorkers simply made splendid Roman plebes. Whitman included the world of work and machinery in his scheme and Pound did not. Whitman proclaimed nature and the artificial to be in harmony with one another; Pound, who had long since put Hailey, Idaho, behind him and pitied young men still mired in the provinces, seemed to welcome a wholly urban world. But for all these differences, Patria Mia has the Whitman stamp upon it as no other document of the pre-War period has.

Another manifestation of the Whitmanesque in that period was The Soil, a little “Magazine of the Arts” that appeared in December, 1916, lived through five feverish issues, and died in July, 1917. The American “arts” that The Soil took as its domain included everything contemporary and therefore, by its definition, vital, in the American scene. American art, The Soil asserted, did not exist in “the art world,” but in the American environment itself, out of which it was growing “naturally, healthfully, beautifully.” 34

The Soil was the creation of Robert J. Coady, a forty-year-old art dealer who had sojourned in Paris during the first decade of the century and had there known Gertrude and Leo Stein, Max Weber, and Henri Rousseau. When Coady returned to New York in 1914, he opened the Washington Square Gallery and there exhibited the European moderns, notably Picasso, Derain, and Juan Gris. Two years later, when Coady decided to publish a journal of the arts, he invited Alfred Kreymborg, the poet, playwright and co-editor, with William Carlos Williams, of Others, to take charge of the literary side while he, Coady, looked after art essays and reproductions. When Kreymborg “gratefully rejected” Coady’s offer, the gallery dealer decided to put the journal out on his own. Coady wrote most of the copy but there were occasional contributions from others, including Arthur Craven, the husband of the Poet Minna Loy, and a legendary bohemian and adventurer. 35

In painting, poetry, and architecture, the past was The Soil’s enemy, a point made succinctly in a sort of subliminal legend scattered through its pages, a dismissive reference to Edwin Markham’s “The Man With the Hoe:” “It’s not the man with the hoe, it’s the man with the steam shovel.” 36 Despite his promotion of the European moderns in his gallery, Coady in his guise as editor was an almost truculent cultural nativist in the Whitman tradition, and regarded everything European as by definition “old.” “The Old World can teach us a lot,” Coady admitted: dedication, the appreciation of beauty, the importance of standards. Works by Van Gogh, Picasso and Cezanne, whom Coady revered, were reproduced in The Soil’s pages to this end. But Europe could teach America neither form nor content. These, to be valid, must be derived from national experience. America had no need of European “isms,” Coady asserted, and illustrated the point with a photograph of the rodeo rider Jess Stahl, a grin of fierce joy on his face, legs flung out at the arch of the mustang’s buck, and, underneath, the caption, “Jess Stahl. He has no ism to guide him.” 37

Like the more influential Seven Arts, whose life-course coincided almost exactly with The Soil’s own, Coady’s journal announced the dawning of an American renaissance. Both enterprises were ultimately derived from Whitman. 38 The Seven Arts departed from the poet’s reforming side, from the idealistic Whitman who called upon spirit to confront fact. The Soil claimed Whitman the natural man who delighted in the world of fact. “There is an American Art,” Coady declared in the opening pages of the first issue, “Young, robust, energetic, naive, immature, daring, and big spirited. Active in every conceivable field.” And then followed a catalog of modern wonders attesting to the divinity of the American average, a list of the editor’s “likes” behind the apparent randomness of which there was much method: 39


The Panama Canal, the Sky-scraper and Colonial Architecture. The East River, the Battery and the “Fish Theatre.” The Tug Boats and the Steam-shovel. The Steam Lighter. The Steel Plants, the Washing Plants and the Electrical Shops. The Bridges, the Docks... the Viaducts. Gary...Indian Beadwork ... Jack Johnson, Charlie Chaplin... Rag Time...Syncopation and the Cake-Walk ... The Window Dressers ... Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb ... The Motorcycle...”The Police Gazette”. . .”Poetry” ...Krazy Kat ... Walt Whitman and Poe ... Artemus Ward and Gertrude Stein ... The Pennsylvania Station... Colt’s Revolvers...Madison Square Garden on fight night... the Pulleys and Hoists... The Cranes, the Plows, the Drills, the Motors, the Thrashers, the Derricks, Steam Hammers, Stone Crushers, Steam Rollers, Grain Elevators, Trench Excavators, Blast Furnaces—This is American Art.


The first issue of The Soil, like Coady’s catalog, conveyed a sense of wonder at the democratic amplitude and richness of American life. There was an essay on the dime novel as literature, an appreciation of the art of Bert Williams, the black vaudevillian, and in the second issue photographs of the Great Northern Railway’s locomotive “3000” and of the “Matt M. Shay,” the “Largest Engine in the world.” These locomotives appeared alongside reproductions of paintings by Picasso and Cezanne. “The shapes arise,” Whitman had said in “Song of the Broad-Axe,” and here were the new American shapes: a Sellers Ten Ton Swinging Jib Crane, a forging press, a Chambersburg Double Frame Steam Hammer, all presented in a “Moving Sculpture Series.” 39a

Coady contrasted these examples of the art of the real with the sterile products of the beaux arts tradition. Opposite the steam hammer he placed a photograph of the Maine Monument, a gaudy pile of corinthian columns and allegorical figures in bronze. “Which,” asked the legend beneath, “is the Monument?” Obviously, the dessicated classicism of the Maine Monument was absurd and the Monument itself irrelevant to a world of machines, while the double‑frame hammer was pure sculpture, a thing of perfect proportions in blue steel.

The Soil differed sharply in its machine enthusiasm from superficially similar varieties in Europe such as English Vorticism, Italian Futurism, and Russian Constructivism.40 The machine might symbolize contradictory emotions and ideas. The Futurists found the machine compelling because of its speed, its “incendiary violence”—speed as sensation, and the fantastic increase in velocity, reach, mobility, and power that the internal combustion engine had made possible. Hence, the automobile and the airplane were the essential machines of Futurist doctrine. The poets and artists of the dawning age of mechanism, the Futurists said, must be as cold-nerved as racing drivers. They would be mad for supreme thrills, contemptuous of death, and contemptuous also of the slothful and bigoted public, that great mass of ordinary mortals who knew only existence, not life. 41

Neither the automobile nor the airplane appeared in The Soil’s pages, and speed was not celebrated in them. Admiration for such spectacularly individualistic machines might have implied an elitist view of the machine age. The Soil celebrated the common man, not supermen. As Coady’s colleague Robert Alden Sanborn wrote in a tribute to The Soil in 1922, the Chambersburg Steam Hammer represented “in its operation the welded power of thousands of workmen, and it follows that the design by which this miracle is achieved should be admirable for something more than its utility. It becomes one of the symbols of a national spirit that flourishes in a soil capable of nourishing the world.” 42 The manner in which The Soil celebrated the machine was curiously old-fashioned. Even the objects of its veneration, locomotives and various stationary industrial machines, were, so to speak, Whitman’s machines.

But The Soil was stunningly new in its openness to what is now called “popular culture” (there was no equivalent term in 1916), in its insistence that vaudeville, movies, the comic strip, window display, the rodeo and baseball were in some sense “art.” It conveyed the feeling on every page of a sensibility and fast-talking style formed within the urban and industrial present, a New Yorker’s style (there is no other way of putting it) that reminds one of Coady’s younger contemporary, Henry Miller, the self-proclaimed patriot of the Fourteenth Ward, Brooklyn, who saw a “harmony of irrelevant facts” in the city streets and said that what was not in the open street was “false, derived, that is to say literature.” 43 There was a similar strain of anti-highbrow pugnacity in Coady which prevented him from considering some of the more disturbing implications of the facts he celebrated. But for all its limitations, or, really, because of them, The Soil was the last manifestation of unselfconscious Whitmanism, the last successful attempt to fuse together Whitman’s populist mysticism and his enthusiasm for machines and big buildings. Thereafter, “affirmations” of the American present and future were vitiated by self‑doubt and ambiguity, and very quickly, in about a decade, all traces of Whitman had disappeared.

There is considerable ambiguity, if no self-doubt, in the film that Charles Sheeler, the photographer-painter, made in collaboration with the photographer Paul Strand in 1920, a camera portrait of New York titled, after Whitman, Mannahatta. The film consisted of a series of beautifully composed shots of the city, each running no more than twenty seconds—the webbed cables and towers of Brooklyn Bridge seen from the walkway, the buildings of lower Manhattan seen from the Brooklyn side, their heights wreathed by smoke, the steam tugs of the harbor ploughing the dazzling afternoon water, and so on. These shots were interspersed with appropriate quotations from Whitman’s New York poems, “Mannahatta,” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “A Broadway Pageant,” and others. The camera’s vistas thus served as visual equivalents of Whitman’s lines; the poet’s dreams of civic grandeur had been realized in concrete and steel. Only seven minutes in length, Mannahatta possesses a power and a sense of amplitude and fulfillment that it is hardly hyperbolic to call symphonic—and it is, of course, exultantly celebratory.

Nevertheless, the comparison demanded by the film between Whitman’s New York and the New York of 1920 indicates just how circumscribed the possibilities of affirmation have become in sixty years. Whitman’s “high growths of iron... splendidly uprising toward clear skies” collectively formed an amphitheater, a dramatic backdrop for significant human action. Whitman not only celebrated the buildings, the grand prospects, the new shapes, but persons, “the mechanics of the city, the masters ... looking you straight in the eye ... manners free and superb.” 44 Sheeler and Strand’s camera never comes in close to frame a human face. We do see workmen drilling through rock with jackhammers, preparing a building foundation for blasting, but these men remain anonymous. For the rest, we simply see the crowd, viewed from the perspective that the new steel towers permit. The Manhattan that Sheeler and Strand celebrate is heroic but utterly impersonal.

Stripped of its quotations from Whitman, Mannahatta’s affinities to other films of the twenties like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and King Vidor’s The Crowd become evident. The same Manhattan skyline that so stirred Sheeler and Strand was the inspiration for Lang’s opening shots in a film depicting a fascist-capitalist future in which the rich live in fantastic penthouses and the workers toil in underground factories. Vidor employed a Dreiser-like naturalism to portray the anonymity and rootlessness of big city life. While the resemblance of Mannahatta to Metropolis is faint, the only real difference between Sheeler and Stand’s portrayal of the city and Vidor’s consists in the positioning of their cameras. Sheeler and Strand aim theirs down from the roofs; in The Crowd the camera is at street level. In one stunning sequence, Vidor’s camera focuses on an office building entrance and then moves up the facade, like an elevator, past row after row of windows, ever faster, until it reaches the top. The spectator, the man on the street, is made to know his place: These buildings command.

All of this is to say that it was almost impossible in the New York of the twenties, the capital, after all, of world finance capitalism, to reconcile democracy and the spirit of the open road with New Era dynamism. By 1921, Van Wyck Brooks had come to the lugubrious conclusion that Whitman’s prophecies for America had gone awry. Although Whitman had spoken rapturously of future cities, Brooks wrote, he had not really foreseen “the immense urban development of this country” and had not dreamed of “the mechanistic society we know.” Whitman in his innocence had taken for granted “space, leisure, a life carried on in the open air. He had lived in a world which in spite of his Manhattan was “essentially rustic.” 45

A similar nostalgia for lost innocence afflicted Hart Crane when he came to write The Bridge, his epic of the modern in emulation of Whitman and in rebuke to the negativism and despair of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. “The form of my poem,” Crane wrote to Waldo Frank in 1926, “rises out of a past that so overwhelms the present with its worth and vision that I’m at a loss to explain my delusion that there exist any real links between that past and a future destiny worthy of it.” 46 Crane failed to see that much of the worth and vision of that past had been created by Whitman, that it was an imaginary past from which such things as draft riots, Tweedism, race-hate and ghastly poverty had been eliminated.

Whereas Whitman had seen the city through a romantic haze, Crane saw it as a hell, a bedlam, a place of loneliness and sad voyeurism. That huge flow of materialism and spiritual aspiration to which Whitman had pointed were in Crane’s poem split asunder; the two now stood in opposition to one another, the city symbolizing the one, the aloof bridge the other. Crane required the fatherly presence of Whitman, his Meistersinger and Great Navigator, to get through the “prison crypt/ Of canyoned traffic” to that now almost unimaginable future, “that span of consciousness thou’st named/ The Open Road.” Finally, the bridge itself, Brooklyn Bridge, Crane’s symbol of harmony and promise, was after all a nineteenth-century creation which had been open to traffic for forty years when Crane began to work on his poem in 1923. So splendid and inevitable a symbol in some ways, the bridge, in spite of Crane’s intentions, seems to rise out of a past that overwhelms the present, an image of promise lost rather than hope regained. 47

If the 1920s possessed a successor to Whitman the lover of urban grandeur, an artist who used the forms of his age to project a vision of an even more splendid future, he was not Crane but the architectural illustrator Hugh Ferriss. Ferriss, an architectural graduate who had worked in the studio of Cass Gilbert when Gilbert’s Woolworth Tower was going up, was by the twenties a specialist at rendering the new generation of “stripped” skyscrapers—the Shelton Hotel, the American Radiator Building, and others. In 1929 these works of homage were published along with others depicting a skyscraper city of the future under the title The Metropolis of Tomorrow. 48 So powerful was the impact of Ferriss’s drawings that Sheldon Cheney was able to write in 1930 that Ferriss perhaps deserved “more credit than any architect since. [Louis] Sullivan for stirring the imaginations of designers, students, and public.” 49

The images which Ferriss’s drawings may conjure up in the viewer’s mind range from ziggurats and canyon walls, through Piranesi’s etchings of gigantic prisons and Boulée’s monstrous. “utopian” eighteenth century renderings of amphitheaters and astronomical observatories to, perhaps, the extraterrestrial fantasy cities of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon comic strip of the 1930’s. 50 But none of these comparisons directs us to the source of these drawings’ disturbing power. Perhaps it is that we are invited, even commanded, to identify with the majesty displayed here. In Ferriss’s works we almost always see the city of the future at night and from above; light from unseen searchlights far below and from the headlights of rivers of cars throws the stepped back, windowless forms of the massive buildings into relief against the black sky. Placing us above it all as he does, the artist invites us to feel solemn awe; we are likely to feel instead a vertiginous queasiness.

Just as Whitman in “Song of the Exposition” had prophesied a series of skyscrapers devoted to the various branches of the arts and learning, so Ferriss envisioned the center of his metropolis divided into three giant zones, the Business Zone, the Art Zone, and the Science zone, representing respectively man’s “senses,” “feelings,” and “thoughts,” each zone to be dominated by a stupendous thirteen‑hundred foot tower, fully eight square city blocks in girth at its base. 51 Here was a monumental New Era vision of sublime harmony achieved under capitalism. In Ferriss’s stunning drawings, the aspirations and troubled dreams of the years of the boom are revealed as they are nowhere else. These skyscrapers, not Hart Crane’s beloved bridge, seem the appropriate realization of Whitman’s celebrations of materialism, mighty industry, and success.

And yet Whitman would have been appalled by Ferriss’s cold utopia, a place from which all traces of saving vulgarity had been abolished, a capitalist paradise without advertising signs. Where were the workingmen here, where the perambulating crowds, where the loving comrades? Whitman’s towers were to be cheerful, and the pride with which he evoked them had the wit to be amused by itself. Similarly, Pound’s admiration for the Metropolitan Life tower was without reverence. only with Sheeler and Strand’s film does one begin to sense a certain incongruity between the vistas displayed and the texts which precede them. Surely, too, there was some basis for Van Wyck Brooks’ suspicion that Whitman would not have found the modern metropolis wholly to his liking, and something right about Crane’s conception of Whitman as a navigator now “without ship,” a Virgil to his own Dante in the modern lower depths.

What it all amounted to was that by the 1920’s it was no longer possible to emulate Whitman, and that however often an artist might resort to draughts from Walt’s magic elixer, the old poet’s ecstatic vision would be denied him. New ways of seeing the environment were required, new myths, new strategies. one might, in the manner of Hugh Ferriss, simply identify with the aspirations of Walter Chrysler and John J. Raskob, and call their creations sublime. One might, as Van Wyck Brooks and others would do, condemn the new scene entire and mourn the memory of Whitman’s Mannahatta. One might become a sort of urban guerilla, planting poetic bombs about the city with grim zest, as E.E. Cummings would do. But whatever the strategy one might adopt, Whitman’s city could not again be conjured into being: it was back there in the unrecapturable past, and, for those who had ever been stirred by it, all the more poignant for that.